Fire with fire
March 17, 1999
I almost found the adventure I was seeking last night: I came within a literal inch of being beaten up by a mob last night. It has a story and a background. The background has everything to do with the political geography of the city of Tehran.
Shahrak-e-Gharb is not just a neighborhood, it is a state of mind and a symbol. This affluent neighborhood in northwest of Tehran, though less extravagant than some of the northeastern Tehran suburbs, has developed a certain reputation in town which is bolstered by the looks and behavior of its own youth. Maybe because demographically, it has the highest percentage of teenagers and early-20s young men and women relative to other neighborhoods, it also has a certain public face. One Shahraki young man told me at a party that he only hangs out with other Shahraki boys, because they are of a "certain type." Whether his veiled meaning is that he discriminates by class, I do not know. But everyone insists that there is a Shahraki type of young man and woman. This type - if there is such a thing - is the young men with slightly longer than kosher hair, slicked back, clean-shaven, dressed impeccably in tight jeans and a nice shirt, perhaps with a Western logo and the girls, made-up, with colorful scarves pulled back to reveal as much (dyed) blonde or red hair as possible with painted toenails in open-toed shoes even in the winter or with stylish chunky shoes.
Even the angry fundamentalist Ansar-e-Hezbollah insist that there is such a type and that this type is decidedly "anti-revolutionary." Whenever you hear an extremist berating the youth for having lost its revolutionary zeal, for having become Westernized again after having been cut off from the West for so long, when you hear a black-shirt standing under a black flag, warming up a crowd - as I did on the 20th anniversary of the Revolution - they talk about "the capitalist kids, the kids of Shahrak-e-Gharb, the kids of Sa'adatabad" and judging from the vice police road-blocks every night in my uncle's neighborhood, we should add Geisha neighborhood to the list as well. These neighborhoods spell trouble.
Last night, Tehran loudly celebrated the fire feast of Charshanbeh Suri. (See photos by Siamak Namazi) It is an ancient feast held on the very last Tuesday of the solar winter, celebrating the end of the year and harking the coming of Noruz, the first day of the spring , and the first day of Iranian year. During the feast, fires are made in the streets of thorn bushes and wood, the entire neighborhood gathers around, and every one jumps over the flames repeating the rhyme, "my yellowness (illness) to you, and your redness (health) to me." Pastries are passed around, there is much merriment in the streets, and it is a good occasion for nervous rendezvous. Since any pre-Islamic feast, sign or symbol has been regarded with some suspicion by the Islamic Republic as some sort of nationalist affront to the Islamic system and mindset, for twenty years the feast has been clandestinely and illegally celebrated until this year when the ministry of interior, by issuing a set of safety guidelines a few days before the feast, tacitly recognized the feast. Though there was some concern that the security or military forces may not heed the Interior Ministry's command, even the foreign news agencies reported that the feast has become "legal" again.
This recognition was all the Tehrani youth needed. Though there were loads of riot police being very obviously transported all day all around the city, and though from 4 p.m. onward there were roadblocks at the entrance of all suspicious neighborhoods - supposedly to prevent the sale and use of dangerous home-made fireworks, the city began preparing itself for the feast. I saw thorn bushes tied to the roofs of cars on the freeways and roads, and excited dads carrying woods from the trunk of cars to even more excited kids. The sound of fireworks and bottle rockets began increasing to a fever pitch until sunset. Excitement was in the air. My Czech friend - who is visiting Iran for the second time - came with me to a friend's house in Shahrak-e-Gharb where rumor had it, the best street scenes could be found.
The rumors were true. There was a fire burning in every street, there were home made fireworks flying all about, in the darker side streets, there were even completely unveiled women jumping over the fires and passing out pastries. The occasion calls for boldness and for joy, and both were in high supply. In Mahestan Street in Shahrak, the street was alive and well into a party atmosphere with hundreds of young men and women milling about. A giant boom-box was playing techno music in the middle of the street and several attractive, well-attired young men were dancing in the center of clapping crowds. Young men and women were openly flirting, the girls playfully screaming at the sound of bottle rockets, and men were handing women bouquets of roman candles. The hejab was scant and the air crackled with electricity. The heads of families in the street were standing on the sidewalk and benevolently smiling at the crowd, prepared at any minute to push the kids inside the safety of the walls, should the vice police or security forces arrive on the scene. The air smelled the delicious smell of wood smoke, and I saw more bliss in one street in a couple of hours than I have in one and half months in all of Iran. My cousin who had traversed the entire city checking out the scene, reported that this atmosphere of joy had ruled all around the city, everywhere in every neighborhood as far as we know. None of us really checked out Southern Tehran.
From what I have heard and have read in the papers today, neither the military nor the security forces interrupted any of the celebrating anywhere. If there had been arrests, the reports have not yet reached the grapevine. But while the official military forces remained neutral towards last night's celebration, Ansar-e-Hezbollah spent a restless night last night. In at least two neighborhoods, - and I can report only on what I saw with my own eyes - trucks full of Ansar-e-Hezbollah, waving flags and sticks and loudspeakers, were trying to disrupt the festivities. In Shahrak-e-Gharb, the young and feverish men in their black clothes and black headbands were waving red flags with the Prophet Mohammed's name on it and harassing young "bad-hejab" women, even beating them.
While driving around to check the scene, their vehement and disproportionately loud protests attracted the attention of my Czech friend; he leaned over me in the car, and through the open window took a picture of the group with the zoom lens on his camera. Upon the lightening of his camera flash, several of the young men in the trucks suddenly started screaming, "Khareji aks gereft" ("The foreigner took a picture") and at once unloaded from the truck. Here we were, stuck in a hellish traffic, with the doors and windows open and several very angry men running towards the car, directly towards me and Lukas, shrieking, "Khareji aks gereft". Somehow, miraculously, the car in front of us moved, and Ali, who was driving the car, pressed the gas pedal and we were all out of harm's way, though today in the bazaar I heard that the BBC photographer was not so lucky and that his camera was confiscated in the same spot in Shahrak-e-Gharb.
What I found interesting however, was that last night, the Ansar were not the victorious. We also saw another Ansar truck of angry young men in the Geisha neighborhood, and based on what I heard from my cousin, an eyewitness, when they tried to disrupt the activities in Geisha, they were given a through beating by the crowd of young men and were sent on their way in their truck whose windows were also broken by the crowd. Lukas wanted to know today why the northern Tehranis did not hire their own thugs to protect their festivities, and I guess when we know the answer to that one, we will see less of the disruptive fury of the Ansar targeted towards what is apparently a harmless event, but in substance, an act of resistance.
suri, Tehran, March 1999